Healing forest to be grown in Winnipeg park

A corner of a Winnipeg park will soon be home to a new outdoor learning space and trees in honour of residential school survivors and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Corner of St. John's Park to see trees, outdoor learning space to honour residential school survivors

Lee Anne Block and Kyle Mason are part of a group hoping to build a healing forest in St. John's Park in the North End. (Elisha Dacey/CBC)

A corner of a Winnipeg park will soon be home to a new outdoor learning space and trees planted in honour of residential school survivors and missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Called a "Healing Forest," the northeast corner of St. John's Park in the North End will be transformed, say organizers, to help people reflect, heal and learn from the past.

"I first heard about the Healing Forest from Charlene Bearhead [of the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation], and it grabbed my imagination instantly. And I almost instantly saw St. John's Park as an important location to put the healing forest in Winnipeg," said project spokesperson Lee Anne Block.

"It's a site where Indigenous people and the settlers met, negotiated, had difficulties, and people struggled on both sides of the equation," Block said. 

"So in terms of reconciliation, in terms of healing, and in terms of the fact there were so many children in schools right around the park who could use it as an outdoor learning space, the idea just kind of grew."

The forest will feature two circle gardens, she added.

"One is the learning space, and there'll be a sacred fire pit in the centre of that space," said Block. "So there's one circle garden which is for learning, and there's another circle garden which is for a different kind of learning, which is an actual growing garden, a medicine wheel garden."

A pathway will connect the two spaces, feature log park benches and the trees they plant will be blended into the current trees already in the park.

"The details are still up in the air but we do have money to start building."

The design of the forest and garden were done in consultation with the community, local elders and the City of Winnipeg, who gave the group the land to build their forest, said Block.

A sketch of the proposed healing forest and learning space. (Submitted by Kyle Mason)

Reconciliation and healing

Fellow organizer Kyle Mason said he got involved in the project when he overheard the group talking about it at Neechi Commons one lunch hour.

The Indigenous activist is the son of two residential school survivors, he said, and he has seen the effects of intergenerational trauma in his own family.

"My family has a long history in this province, my family's actually direct descendents of Chief Peguis on my father's side, and on my mother's side my grandfather was the co-founder of the Manitoba Metis Federation.

"And so Lee Anne's mentions about Indigenous peoples conversing with people in St. John's Park along the river, those were my people."

The healing forest is another step in reconciliation efforts, especially for families like his, said Mason.

"Now I'm a father of a four-year-old at home and this is the first time in generations that somebody in my family has grown up with both mom and dad at home," Mason said.  

"So my biggest life goal is to have the impacts of residential schools not carried down to my son, through his generation, so that my life can be a watershed moment in my family history.

"And healing and reconciliation needs to happen, so that's why a project like this is so important."

The group will unveil the plans and launch the project on Monday at St. John's Anglican Cathedral at 10 a.m. Indigenous leaders and elders will be attending, said Mason.

With files from The Weekend Morning Show